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Hollywood Park has resurfaced

Times Staff Writer

A new era in California racing begins today with the start of Hollywood Park’s autumn meet.

Gone is the traditional dirt surface, replaced by a synthetic surface known as Cushion Track. All major thoroughbred venues in the state have been mandated by the California Horse Racing Board to switch to a synthetic surface of some kind by the start of 2008.

The arrival of Cushion Track has prompted some optimism heading into the 36-day season in Inglewood.

Especially in recent years, Hollywood Park’s fall meet has been greeted with apathy, by both horsemen and fans. Small fields have been the rule.

The track hit bottom last year, when problems with the turf course caused the cancellation of grass racing. A casualty was the three-day Turf Festival, which, along with the Hollywood Starlet and Hollywood Futurity, Grade I races for 2-year-olds, are the annual highlights of the meet.

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The stable area is nearly full and many trainers are eager to run over the new surface. The Turf Festival has returned, and one of the main attractions of the Thanksgiving weekend is the $500,000 Hollywood Derby, a Grade I at 1 1/4 miles on grass Nov. 26.

Showing Up, the multiple stakes-winning 3-year-old trained by Barclay Tagg for owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s Lael Stables, is expected for the Hollywood Derby. The $500,000 Matriarch, a Grade I at one mile on turf, will be run the same day and could attract Karen’s Caper, who finished a nose behind Gorella in the First Lady last month at Keeneland.

Horses from other venues are also coming west. Todd Pletcher, Rick Dutrow Jr., Lisa Lewis and Patrick Biancone, who train primarily in New York, will all have strings at Hollywood Park.

“I’ve been to California twice and I’ve always wanted to get back,” Lewis said. “The synthetic track is an added bonus. It gives us a good option, other than Florida.

“Trainers usually don’t agree on much, but they all seem to agree the surface helps horses stay sounder.”

The horses Pletcher is sending are expected to arrive after Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup and are supposed to remain for Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet, which begins Dec. 26.

The country’s leading trainer again in 2006, Pletcher has set season records for stable earnings and stakes wins and is poised to add to those totals Saturday at Churchill Downs. He pre-entered 18 horses in the eight Breeders’ Cup races.

“Sending a string to California has crossed our minds for a couple of years, but I’ve never felt as if the timing was exactly right or had any owners who specifically wanted to run some horses in California until [a synthetic surface] came along,” Pletcher was quoted as saying earlier this year.

“We’ve had pretty decent luck shipping out there and any time you go somewhere, you want to make sure you are competitive.”

Cushion Track, a mixture of granulated rubber, silica sand and wax, was installed at a cost of $8 million after Hollywood Park’s spring-summer meet in July.

Before a race has been run over the surface, the reviews, from such trainers as Hall of Famers Neil Drysdale, Ron McAnally and Jack Van Berg, have been positive since it was opened for training Sept. 13.

“I haven’t heard anybody knock it yet and trainers usually find something to complain about,” trainer Mike Mitchell said. “I’ve seen horses change for me from Del Mar, and I’m not trying to knock Del Mar, but it was a bad meet down there for a lot of us, as far as soundness goes.”

Cushion Track “really made a difference with Symphony Sid and Texcess,” he added. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Without a doubt, it is the best surface on which I have trained horses.”

A $50,000 claim by Mitchell earlier in the year, Symphony Sid won the $100,000 Carleton F. Burke Handicap on Oct. 21 at Santa Anita, and Texcess ended a 16-race losing streak when he won the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic last Saturday.

bob.mieszerski@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Hollywood Park

Dates: Today-Dec. 18 (36 days), dark Mondays and Tuesdays except Dec. 18.

* Post times: 12:30 p.m. with the following exceptions -- 8:15 a.m. (Saturday, first Breeders’ Cup simulcast from Churchill Downs; first live race 10:30 a.m.); 7 p.m. on Nov. 10 and 17; 11 a.m. on Nov. 23.

* Significant races: $400,000 Citation Handicap (Nov. 24); $500,000 Hollywood Derby (Nov. 26); $500,000 Matriarch (Nov. 26); $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup (Dec. 9); $250,000 Hollywood Futurity (Dec. 16) and $250,000 Hollywood Starlet (Dec. 17).


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